Getting to the party

AriCooks, cake, dessert, Summer, Tips and Tricks

We have a lot of summer birthdays in my family, which, in addition to the summer I spent running a little cake-making business from my kitchen, has taught me a bit about how to make birthday cakes (and frosting) in warmer temperatures, and how to create a lovely-looking cake in stages so that you, the cake-baker, arrives at party day relaxed and ready to enjoy.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume you are baking (really, building) a straightforward sheet or layer cake here. I think most of these guidelines would also be applicable to something like carrot cake, which is also often frosted, or even a genoise, which is soaked and then covered with ganache or glaze. Also, I am going to assume that if you’ve gotten this far, you know the basics of cake-baking and may even have a recipe in mind. If not, take a peek at these:
Weeknight Cake Making

Birthday Cake, Straight-Up

Chocolate Raspberry Layer Cake 

Photo from a million years ago

Photo from a million years ago

So, it’s July or August, or even a steamy early-September, and you have a cake to bake. I like to begin cake-building 3-4 days before the party, especially in the summer,and when there are other preparations that will take up time as well.

  1. The actual baking: After I have made my shopping list and arrived home with my ingredients (and checked to see that I have all the necessary staples– parchment paper, pan spray etc), I bake the cake/cake layers. If it’s hot, this is best done in the early morning (after coffee!), or late evening. Preheating an oven and baking the cake for 30-40 minutes, really increases the temperature of the house, especially if you live in a smaller space. When the cake has cooled (in the pan for 5-10 min, then out of the pan completely) you should wrap it up really well with plastic wrap (layers should be wrapped individually) and freeze it until you are ready to frost it — ideally, the night before the party. Do not refrigerate it. If you have done this step just one day before the party, you can leave it out, wrapped well, but not if the cake has ANY fresh fruit or veggies in it (blueberries, carrots etc).

2. Making Frostings and fillings: Most icings, frostings, and fillings (ganache is not so easy to make ahead) can certainly be made ahead of time and refrigerated or even frozen. Most of them will need to be brought to room temp before spreading and something like buttercream will definitely need to be re-beaten before it can be spread. If you don’t mind doing that, then I do recommend making buttercream ahead of time because it is time-consuming and you want to feel fresh and relaxed for the fun part- the decorating. If you are planning an outdoor party, where the cake may be sitting in the heat for a bit, it is HIGHLY recommended that you use at least part shortening or margarine in your buttercream. An all-butter buttercream is very tasty, but butter’s low melting point does not lend it to a stable frosting that will stand up to heat. You want to set yourself up for success after all this work, so unless your summer cake-eating is happening in air-conditioning, I recommend at least half shortening. You can use something like Earth Balance (supposedly healthier) or just a simple margarine.

3. Building your cake: The night before the party get your frosting at the right consistency and unwrap your frozen cake. Frosting a frozen cake has a great advantage: you may not need a crumb layer– that is to first frost your cake with a thin layer of frosting that some crumbs stick to and show-through, and then chill it and frost again with a second layer, thus hiding the crumbs. Frozen cakes tend not to shed as many crumbs, but obviously if your frosting is lily-white and your cake is chocolate, you may need a crumb layer regardless. When you have frosted the cake, and perhaps decorated with any piped frosting, cover the whole thing in some kind of cake-keeper until the day-of. Save any floral, fruit, or chocolate embellishments until right before the presentation, as they will not hold up well to overnight refrigerating.

4. The Day-Of: Complete any final touches on your cake in the hours before the party. Keep cake refrigerated until about half an hour before serving. Also, remember that certain fruit, like strawberries, can bleed color onto white frosting, so don’t leave those on the cake for too long before serving.